STEAMFEST Huntsville: The Origin Story

When I was a kid I loved building things. I’d create Lego castles that morphed into vast cities constructed out of whatever I could find around our house. When kitchen materials went missing, my mom knew they were up in my room, propping, blocking, or playing some integral role in the expansive empires I loved building.

For most of the parents reading this, it will come as no surprise that kids learn vast amounts through playing.

A day of playful science will be taking place on April 18th from Noon to 4 PM as part of Huntsville’s second annual STEAMFEST. 

Then I started going to school, and my time was increasingly spent with my face stuck inside of a textbook. At a young age I retreated from “school science” which consisted of memorizing terms for tests and “school math” which lived on stark white pages, disconnected from the world. Even problems completed in class, odd problems completed at home. “These are all odd problems” I used to joke to myself.

Construction ceased, traded in for “rigorous” but often meaningless homework. More so as I grew older.

Don’t get me wrong, I did fine in school and continue to be able to jump through hoops on demand, but I didn’t love most of the school day. I couldn’t see a point to most of what was presented to me, couldn’t see how science and math were actual living, breathing parts of my life. It wouldn’t be until I was working on my Ph.D., struggling through statistics, that I finally came to love math. It was when a friend taught me how to play poker and suddenly probability and odds made a great deal of sense.


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That experience marked the beginning of my studies in the “gamification” of learning. For most of the parents reading this blog, it will come as no surprise that kids learn vast amounts through playing. Playing requires creativity, analysis, synthesis, divergent thinking, impulse control, metacognition…well…play draws on just about every higher order thinking skill out there.

Scenes from last year's inaugural STEAMFEST at Lowe Mill.
Scenes from last year’s inaugural STEAMFEST at Lowe Mill.

Stop for a minute and wonder with me why play is absent from most traditional classrooms. There simply aren’t enough teachers encouraging children to play with ideas, to create solutions to real problems, to take math and science and use them for making a dent in the universe.

I’m not blaming the teachers, although it may be true that few of them have been taught how to incorporate play into their teaching. I could talk about the politics behind current classroom control, but that conversation is simply too dirty to have on a child-friendly blog.

Fortunately, there are some visionary people in Huntsville City Schools, and in grades 6-8, some really cool things have been going on in scores of math classes across the city. Teachers and students are playing with math. Not all, of course, but many. In fact this year over 600 Eighth Graders are making Pinewood Derby race cars, using principles of mathematics in the design, production, and ultimately the racing.

Unlike traditional Pinewood Derby races, the final track is just a little bit taller, a little bit faster, and a little bit more playful. Imagineered by 2B Design Studios, the track will emerge from the 3rd story of Lowe Mill, dropping at a 45-degree angle before leveling out and finishing in front of a booth marked INTUITIVE.


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All of this will be taking place on April 18th from Noon to 4 PM as part of Huntsville’s second annual STEAMFEST.

A partnership between Huntsville City Schools and Lowe Mill, STEAMFEST is an event showcasing the application of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) while at the same time reminding us all that art plays an integral role in the application. Leonardo da Vinci…artist or engineer?

Last year’s event featured a “paintball robot” and Oobleck, a fluid that turns into a solid when you apply enough pressure. We had children literally walking… running… on water. I am actually not ever supposed to mention Oobleck again because it turned into one of the messiest displays ever put on at Lowe Mill.


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STEAMFEST Oobleck

What can I say? It was performance science.

While the 3-storey racetrack will no doubt be a highlight this year, we have other tricks up our sleeves including lasers, drones, wind tunnels, and at least one jet engine in a suitcase. I could go on, but the surprise is part of the fun.

I hope you will join us outside on that sunny day to celebrate the hard play of these young mathematicians. Last year we had about 4,000 people. This year we’re expecting quite a few more.

STEAMFEST 2015 Details

Address: Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment (map)
Date: Saturday, April 18 from Noon – 4:00 PM
Cost: FREE; $2 to park, donations accepted
View Website | STEAMFEST info on Facebook

Philip Kovacs thumbABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Philip Kovacs is an Associate Professor at UAH, the VP of Education at Appleton Learning, and Co-Founder of Vastly, Inc. He is the lead organizer for STEAMFEST and an advocate for learning above and beyond what is contained in textbooks and classrooms.